Several weeks ago I heard about the game “Second Life” and downloaded it, but hadn’t installed it or really given it much thought. Until now, I really haven’t had time with everything that’s been going on with my move and new job! This evening I installed it and created an Avatar– and whoa! This world is amazing. Truly amazing.

Where do I begin? First I’ll admit that I spent (some might say wasted, but I really was learning) 2 – 3 hours exploring and playing in the environment. The options available in creating your avatar alone are incredible. But that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of what is here.

I am first reminded of what “adventure computer games” started as. The year was probably 1982 or 1983, and I was in 7th and 8th grade. We had Commodore 64 computers at school, and we used them a bit in math class. We were learning to program in BASIC. My goal at that time was to create a text-based “create your own story” game, and it was tedious and really not all that exciting when I think about it now. But boy did I ever think that was cool then! To write some lines of code and make a computer program that would respond to simple choices… that was incredible. After hours of work, I think I succeeded in maybe creating two or three different “branches” to the text-based game. Why in the world were we doing that in math class in the early 1980s? Because that was what you DID with computers: programmed them! We didn’t have a GUI or mouse! ;-)

Well, here we are in 2006, and I’ve just played and explored in the Second Life environment for several hours. It is unbelievable. When I write that “the future is open” in blog posts, as I did last night, that statement does not exactly equate to how open the possibilities are in a virtual environment like Second Life. It really takes awhile to get your head around this, and I am just starting.

I met some very nice, helpful people in Second Life, and I also met some rude folks who cussed a lot. There were a fair number of other newbies like myself, but many more people who clearly had been around awhile. There is an entirely new vocabulary, cognitive schema, and skill set here, in terms of knowing what words mean, what you can do, and how you can do those things.

In addition to designing what your Second Life character looks like, you can move around, interact with people and things, fly around, and teleport to different places in the virtual Second Life world. I registered for free and did not share a credit card or PayPal account, so as a result I didn’t have any virtual money (Linden dollars.) My ability to buy things was therefore zilch, but there were still lots of interesting things to explore and do.

I met someone who had bought a sword and looked a lot like a Ninja Turtle with a cat head, and lots of other people with customized clothing they had mostly purchased. (At least the people I asked said they had purchased it.) Some people shared notes of tips with me, others shared landmarks that were good places to go for newbies. Where did all these “places” come from? Other people have created them in the virtual environment! Just like I created a rudimentary text-based environment using BASIC in the early 1980s, other people are using the environment in “Second Life” to create entire worlds. Except (and this is a HUGE exception) they are able to immediately share their creations with others, and their creations are immediately INTERACTIVE.) I went to the location for the Second Life birthday celebration, and saw not just buildings, roads, sidewalks and parks, but also fountains complete with sound effects. And that was probably not any big deal, compared to what else is out there that I still don’t know about.

I used the map to explore around, teleporting different places, and was helped by another person to learn about the FIND button and how to use it. There was a button to allow or disallow places and content that are considered “mature.” I noted on the website tonight that the creators now have made “Teen Second Life,” apparently in an effort to get teens and adults separated in these virtual worlds. Of course, when you register you can put in any information that you want– so the creation of a separate “teen” environment is no guarantee that bad folks won’t go there… but I think the idea is still a good one.

This reminds me a lot of “The Sims,” although I have not played that game, just read about it– but I’m struck that the interactivity with the real world makes it quite a bit different. In Second Life, you are interacting synchronously with REAL people, not with computer programs, and that makes a ton of difference. The “help” menus are very good, and include excellent suggestions if you are being “grieved” (bothered / harassed) by someone else in the game– there are abuse reporting options, along with other ways to mute and ban people you don’t want to interact with.

The global interactive aspect of Second Life is what is most mind blowing. Unlike a “normal” computer game (I am thinking of older ones here, I guess)– in which a user interacted in the past with just the computer– in Second Life people are interacting with other people– live. I know game systems like “X-Box Live” have been around for several years, and these (with a paid subscription) let people cooperatively or competitively play games together over the Internet. The creative side of Second Life is remarkable, however. An open world. Create it and interact with it, invite others to come, buy and sell virtual objects that you’ve obtained or created. Creativity is a must. Imagination is essential. What an amazing concept and world.

My final thought concerns authenticity and critical thinking. Basically, you have to question everything you see in Second Life. People create their own personnas, and there are few limits to what they can do. Who is that person you’re seeing in Second Life in real life? There is no telling! Could be any age. Could be any gender. Could be located anywhere on the planet there is Internet access. Of course text chat reveals some things, and people can put some info in their “profile” so you can learn some things. The day of their “Second Life birth” is when they started playing, and that can’t be faked, apparently. But the rest of the user-entered info could be real or bogus.

What an amazing environment for not only creativity, but also for critical thinking. Things are likely not what they appear to be. Is this an engaging environment? Absolutely. Why? Well I think the main reason is, there are lots of real people there. And you never know what people are going to do or say. Unpredictable. But also liberating and fun. (I’m sure that equates to a 100% guarantee that “Second Life” and “Teen Second Life” will be banned applications on all school computers, student laptops or otherwise.)

I ran into some people who spoke a mix of Spanish and English (at least they were text messaging that way) and I text chatted with them a bit in Spanish. Where were they playing from, geographically on the planet? I have no idea. Amazing. I was sitting in a motel room in Edmond, Oklahoma, and I was literally on a multi-hour virtual field trip with people around the planet.

And it was all free, since I have access to a computer and a relatively fast Internet connection. Just amazing.

I could go on, but those are some initial impressions. This isn’t Pac Man, folks. This is an incredibly complex, dynamic virtual environment that is being created and morphed into new forms each day by people just like you and me. Take some time and explore “Second Life.” We’re living in extremely interesting times. As adults, educators and parents, we need to understand these virtual environments so we can help our children safety navigate them. And in the process, we might just find ourselves engaged and having fun as well– in a virtual Second Life!


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